Debriefing the 2007 Polaris Music Prize

Polaris Prevails!I think the Pitchfork headline said it best: “Polaris Prize Goes to Arcad—WTF? Patrick Watson?!”

I’m not necessarily suggesting that Neon Bible deserved to win the 2007 Polaris Music Prize. Frankly, I didn’t think that either of the two biggest nominees – Arcade Fire and Feist – had a hope in hell of winning Canada’s version of Britain’s Mercury Prize, an award of $20,000 that recognizes a full-length album Canadian album judged solely on artistic merit, without regard to genre or record sales.

My reason for this presumption was based entirely on last year’s decision, where Final Fantasy’s He Poos Clouds took home the prize by beating out indie superstars like Broken Social Scene, Metric, the New Pornographers and Wolf Parade. At least people had heard of Final Fantasy before he won (mostly due to Owen Pallett’s work with Arcade Fire); I bet an awful lot of indie kids are waking up this morning and wondering just who the hell Patrick Watson is.

Now personally, I think the Polaris Music Prize is a great idea. It brings some well-deserved attention to a number of off-the-beaten-track artists and bands and it highlights the wonderfully exciting Canadian music that’s being made coast-to-coast. This doesn’t mean that the award hasn’t been met with some criticism: in true Canuck fashion, the main concerns have been the lack of regional and Francophone representation in the nominees it produces.

But stereotypically Canadian complaints aside, the bigger question is whether the Polaris process actually awards the most deserving album, based on its criteria of “artistic merit.” And on two fronts, I think the Polaris Music Prize begs questions.

First, there’s the cash prize. Already, awards with a large independent or alternative contingent have to confront the natural inclination to award the underdog, an artist or band who hasn’t been well served by the music media. Voters are very conscious of the power they wield, knowing that whoever ends up as the winner will get significant press coverage in newspapers across the country and around the world.

This bias against more popular artists like Arcade Fire and Feist is further aggravated by the award’s cash prize. Now, not only are voters concerned about awarding attention and press to an artist that doesn’t need it, they also don’t want to give $20,000 to someone who is having no trouble making ends meet. Funny enough, both Final Fantasy and Patrick Watson said that their cash winnings would be used to pay off existing debts; a coincidence, for sure, but a telling one. By tying the Polaris Prize to a cash reward, it significantly shifts the parameters of debate over which album takes home the award.

How that debate is run brings us to the other significant concern in the Polaris process. The ten nominees are decided by a jury list of over 170 local and national music journalists, broadcasters and bloggers. No one with a direct financial relationship with an artist is eligible to vote. Each journalist submits their list of their five favourite Canadian recordings, which are then vetted for eligibility and tabulated to form the shortlist of 10 nominees. For two years now, this process has produced (in my opinion) a diverse, relevant list of contenders.

Now we get to the interesting part. The final decision about which artist gets the $20,000 prize is actually made on the night of the award’s Gala Presentation. During the show, a “Grand Jury,” made up of 11 journalists selected from the larger group of jurors, deliberates and chooses a winner. This year, the Grand Jury consisted of five journalists from Toronto, two from the Maritimes, two from Montreal and one each from Edmonton and Ottawa (you can see the full list here).

Now, the Polaris rules don’t say much about how the Grand Jury actually makes their decision, so I have no clue if it’s a run-off voting process or if the group has to actually come to a consensus. But it says something interesting that in the first two years of the Polaris Prize, two completely different Grand Juries came to remarkably similar decisions. Both Final Fantasy and Patrick Watson make orchestral folk-pop music that’s fairly middle-of-the-road and, if I may use the term nicely, inoffensive.

Even if the final voting process isn’t by consensus, both Final Fantasy and Patrick Watson feel like consensus decisions, a choice made more in the interest of bland democracy than on awarding genuinely innovative work. The problem with having a small, selected jury decide the winner – on the night of the awards show, no less – is that the best music, like good art in general, has a polarizing element to it. Truly great music doesn’t just reward the listener – it challenges him or her, pushes their views on sound and substance into bold new directions.

As much as I can enjoy the artistry of both Final Fantasy and Patrick Watson, I don’t find either record particularly challenging. The fact that both winning albums come from the exact same style of music makes me wonder if someone like Cadence Weapon or the Junior Boys could ever get the Grand Jury consensus to win the award. Does this not challenge the Prize’s claim to present the award “without regard to genre”?

Of course, any process that judges “artistic merit” – a highly subjective term – is never going to be perfect. And considering that the Polaris Prize is really founded on the cash prize sponsored by Rogers, that part of the equation isn’t going away anytime soon. But I do think that the Polaris Music Prize needs to question whether a small jury debating on the night of the awards show is really the best way to declare a winner. Twice now, it has ended up with a choice that feels more palatable than poignant, a product of flawed democracy instead of a truly deserving record.

So congrats to Patrick Watson; his win is certainly going to lead me to give his record another listen. But if the Polaris Prize wants to have a long and respected lifespan, it’s going to need to ask some serious questions about its selection process.

Edit: Not to continue the incestuous relationship that McNutt Against the Music seems to have lately with Maclean’s Taste Police blog, but Jordan has written a post that not only provides more insight into the Polaris voting process, but makes a brilliant Patrick Watson/Stéphane Dion analogy that I really wish I had come up with first.

Watch: Patrick Watson – “Drifters”


4 responses to “Debriefing the 2007 Polaris Music Prize

  1. I was really surprised by Watson’s win. I do enjoy his album, but I thought the jury would pick Miracle Fortress, or maybe even Plaskett (yeah right).

    I think there were more deserving albums for sure. Let’s hope Polaris doesn’t lose any credibility (for the reasons you metioned) as the years go on.

  2. Pingback: …in which McNutt celebrates the Polaris Prize finalists « McNutt Against the Music·

  3. Pingback: …in which McNutt salutes the 2009 Polaris Prize « McNutt Against the Music·

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